How the UCAT works and how to ace it to get into medicine

Is Medicine your calling? Well direct entry from year 12 into medicine will require taking the UCAT test - this article dies deep into exactly what the UCAT is and how to ACE it!

a month ago   •   14 min read

By KIS Academics
Photo by Online Marketing / Unsplash

What actually is the UCAT?

The UCAT, or the University Clinical Aptitude Test, is an online computer-based assessment designed to test your abilities across a range of different criteria. The test lasts 2 hours*, with various amounts of time being divided across 5 subsections: verbal reasoning, decision making, quantitative reasoning, abstract reasoning, and situational judgement. It was first adopted in Australia in 2019 to replace the UMAT but has been around in the UK since 2006 under its original name the UKCAT.

*Students with documented medical conditions or disabilities may apply for Access Arrangements to sit an extended version of the test.

What is it used for?

The UCAT is used for the direct entry (undergraduate) pathway into medicine and dentistry. This is generally a 5 or 6-year degree (depending on your university of choice) that accepts students straight out of high school.

The UCAT is used to help rank students who apply to each degree, alongside their ATAR and in some cases an interview. The exact requirements vary a bit between universities, but they all use a combination of these assessments with different weighting given to each component. Some universities don’t require an interview, and some require an additional written application – so be sure to check the exact requirements of the universities you want to apply to on their respective websites.

Here is an up-to-date list of the universities across Australia and New Zealand that require the UCAT.

The main alternate pathway into medicine, the post-graduate pathway, doesn’t require the UCAT. In this pathway, the UCAT is replaced by the GAMSAT, and the ATAR is replaced by your undergraduate university scores – which can be in any degree, but most people chose a health/science-related degree such as biomedicine, science, or nursing. If you're interested in getting into Medicine yourself and need some support, check out this collection of Australia's top UCAT tutors.

How is it scored?

The scoring is a bit complicated. For each section, you will get a score between 300 (the lowest possible) and 900 (the highest possible).

There is a larger pool of questions that get used each year, which are selected and presented at random to each student to neutralise the possibility of cheating - as every student’s test will be unique. While the questions differ between students, their scores are equated and balanced to ensure a standardised scaled score, so you will not be disadvantaged by when you chose to sit the exam.

You will get a breakdown of your scores in each section, plus a cumulative score that is the sum of the first four sections (Verbal Reasoning, Decision Making, Quantitative Reasoning, and Abstract Reasoning).

This cumulative score, which will be between 1200 and 3600 is the score most universities look at, with some universities placing higher or lower priority on individual sections. Online calculators can estimate the percentile each score correlates to, but these are rough estimates only.

The Situational Judgement is used as a standalone score that only some universities take into consideration.

Overall, what is deemed a ‘competitive’ UCAT score varies each year and is hard to pinpoint exactly because the score is combined with ATAR and interviews. As a ROUGH guide, a score over 3000 sits in the ‘incredible’ range, a score between 2800-3000 will give you a red-hot chance for an interview, a score 2600-2800 gives you a fighting chance, and a score below 2600 should act as good motivation to get the highest ATAR possible.

Again, this is a very broad approximation – don’t count yourself out until the offers are released because scoring is multi-factorial, and you never know what will happen.

When do I sit it?

Students who are undertaking or have completed their final year of secondary schooling (Year 12) are eligible to sit the UCAT. The examination period runs from July to mid-August each year, and when you register, you can book to sit your exam any time within this period, at the testing location nearest to you.

As university applications occur at the end of Year 12, most people sit it during their final year of school. If you don’t achieve a competitive score or don’t want to add additional stress to your last year, one option is to take a gap year, sit the UCAT again (or for the first time), and then apply to the direct entry program for the following year.

In Victoria, you have to take a gap year because you cannot apply for an undergraduate program once you have started a university degree. This does not hold true for some universities in NSW, and entry requirements can be updated each year – so be sure to double-check this with your desired university’s official website.

If you’re a Year 10 or 11 reading this article – it’s never too early to start preparing if you’re eager to get going. It can be a pretty stressful time though, so don’t feel like you HAVE to start that early – for most people, 3-6 months is more than enough time to prepare, so feel free to put the UCAT in the back of your mind for now and come back to it closer to Year 12. If you're interested in getting into Medicine yourself and need some support, check out this collection of Australia's top UCAT tutors.

What will I be tested on?

As mentioned earlier, there are 5 subsections to the UCAT. In between each subsection, you will have 1 minute to read the instructions, but you will be able to familiarise yourself with these during the practice exams and should instead use this minute as a mental pause to put the previous section behind you (regardless of how you went) and be ready to hit the ground running in the next section.

The first - Verbal Reasoning – is made up of 44 questions to be answered in 21 minutes. That’s less than 30 seconds per question, so, as with all of the UCAT, speed is of the essence.

The UCAT website says VR “assesses the ability to critically evaluate information presented in a written form,” which in reality means you will be given several passages to skim read, with a few questions to answer per passage, interpreting and inferring meaning from the text. This section will probably remind you of the NAPLAN questions, which are somewhat similar, but a lot easier.

Next is Decision Making, which has 29 questions to be answered in 31 minutes. At almost 1 minute per question, it’s the most time you’ll have to answer any UCAT question. The reason is that it seeks to “assess the ability to make sound decisions and judgements using complex information” so these questions are more complex and require a bit more thinking, rather than simple interpretation. These questions will probably be a bit different from anything you’ve seen before.

Next up is Quantitative Reasoning. QR is comprised of 36 questions, which you have 25 minutes to complete. It aims to assess “the ability to critically evaluate information presented in a numerical form.”

Unlike Year 12 maths, you won’t be using the quadratic formula, or solving for derivatives – you will be using simple arithmetic to solve problems with numbers in them, again similar to NAPLAN. Due to time constraints, most people rely on mental maths to do the calculations, but there is an online calculator built into the platform.

It’s clunky and slow though – so time to dust off the time’s tables charts from primary school if mental maths isn’t your forte (this isn’t entirely a joke – I used BBC Bitesize and other primary school websites to improve my mental maths because it was shocking).

You will then tackle Abstract Reasoning – a whopping 50 questions in just 12 minutes. With only 14.4 seconds to answer each question, speed and intuition are key. It “assesses the use of convergent and divergent thinking to infer relationships from information,” which is a fancy way of saying pattern recognition. You definitely won’t have encountered questions like this before, so preparation is key.

Last is Situational Judgement. It has 66 questions in 26 minutes and seeks to measure “the capacity to understand real-world situations and to identify critical factors and appropriate behaviour in dealing with them.” Basically, you will be presented with potential scenarios that you could encounter as a student, doctor, or just in general life, and will have to rank how appropriate each suggested response is from very appropriate to very inappropriate.

This section can sometimes seem like common sense, but the exam is very good at finding scenarios and responses that are very complicated and boiling them down to a single answer that ranks its ‘appropriateness’ becomes very tricky.

As you can see, timing is king in this exam. The exam is structured so that there are usually 2-5 follow-up questions for each prompt, which speeds it along a little bit, but the fact remains that it is an extremely time-poor exam.

Sitting the UCAT

Once you’ve decided to sit for the UCAT, you will need to register online. Bookings usually open in March and close in May, but make sure to check the exact dates of your year on the official website. You don’t want to put it off and miss out, so sign up as soon as possible – late bookings have additional fees!

On the day of the exam, you will have to arrive 30 minutes before your appointment time, verify your photo ID and store all your belongings in a locker. The exam itself has a similar set-up to the test for your Learner’s licence – you’ll be brought into a room full of desktop computers and will follow the prompts to start the test. You will be provided with a whiteboard to do working out on (for me this ‘whiteboard’ was a laminated piece of paper, a Texta, and tissues, so don’t expect too much!).

Once you’re done, your results get emailed to you within 24 hours. Some people get their results instantly, others will have to spend a few agonising hours frantically refreshing their emails. After that, you can forget it ever existed and get back to focussing on Year 12.

Do I even need to prepare?

You will undoubtedly hear whispers that, since it is an aptitude test, it’s pointless to prepare. You’ll hear talk that your neighbour’s cousin’s best friend sat it without even knowing what it was and got a 99th percentile score. People will claim that UCAT preparation courses are just money-making schemes designed to exploit vulnerable students.

But it’s not (entirely) true. While it is an aptitude test, there is a steep learning curve to doing well. The exam interface is clunky, and you don’t want to waste valuable time learning how to navigate it.

If you get stuck on one question, it can ruin an entire subsection, so developing strategies to get through as many questions as possible by knowing when to skip and when to stick it out is crucial. Getting over this learning curve is easier said than done and can take up to a few months to get your technique down pat and start to understand the questions.

As for the freaks of nature scoring 99th percentiles we hear about? Most of these cases are probably exaggerated, but with so many students sitting it each year, some are bound to fluke it. Some might even be the next Einstein in waiting, but for the vast majority of people, you won’t fluke the exam. I wasn’t willing to gamble when I was in Year 12, so I chose to prepare to the best of my ability.

When you think about the fact that, for most Universities, ATAR and UCAT are given equal weighting, it’s a no-brainer. You wouldn’t sit your final exams without preparing, so why some people don’t give the UCAT the same respect they do their ATAR, I don’t know. Don’t be that person.

So what about the people that claim the UCAT is a pay-to-play test? Some companies do charge eye-watering amounts of money, out of proportion to anything we see in tutoring for any other subject.

I would encourage caution in these instances (as do the official UCAT consortium) since there are so many free or reasonably priced resources out there (including right here at KIS Academics!) that offer everything you need to reach your maximum potential.

How can I prepare?

Like any assessment, the most valuable resource you have is the official exam materials from the assessors. In this case, that is the UCAT Consortium website’s official preparation material.

Anyone sitting on the UCAT should scour their website to learn everything they can from the people who write the test. Not only is it free, but it’s also the most representative source of what you will see on the real test and will help you become familiar with the exact format that you will encounter on the day. They have advice, video resources, question banks, and practice exams to help you in your preparation.

Other free resources that will help you along your way include the wealth of knowledge available on YouTube, free resources put out by various big companies promoting their paid services, or a humble Google search for ‘UCAT advice’ or something along those lines to pull up all the resources readily available online.

I also highly encourage you to reach out to people from the year level above who were successful in getting into medicine/dentistry. Ask them to catch up for a coffee (your shout) to talk about their experience applying, and any tips and tricks they have to offer.

If you are interested in accessing courses designed to help prepare you for the UCAT (as I did in Year 12), there are certain characteristics I would look for. Resources that offer a well-structured approach minimise time wasted planning what to do and coming up with an order yourself.

Time is your most precious commodity in Year 12, so steer clear of anything that doesn’t have a structured approach. As mentioned earlier, I would opt for something reasonably priced due to their wide availability, and the lack of additional value offered by the more expensive courses.

Finally, I would look for resources from top scorers. UCAT is all about having the question types ‘figured out,’ and the top scorers are the best way to guarantee you’re learning from someone who has got a very solid grasp of what the exam is testing and how to answer it, over and over again.

KIS Academics have created a course that I believe fits these requirements very well. At just $8/week, using a structured online portal, it ticks all of the boxes I would look for in a resource. It also happens to be created by Shanaka, who was my UCAT tutor back in 2019 when I was in your place, so I can personally attest to the quality of the resources. Check out the 7-day free trial!

Medify is another platform that ticks a lot of these boxes. It was originally made for the UKCAT, so has a very large question bank, and has a higher but still reasonable price.

I personally didn’t come close to getting through even half of the questions offered in the bank. I encourage you to research other platforms as well to see what is on offer and do a comparison of your own! There are also some UCAT preparation textbooks that you can check out as well, but given it is an online exam they will naturally have some limitations to them.

You could also opt to do individual or group tutoring that is more personalised and can help guide you through mistakes, keep you accountable, answer any questions you have, and add a degree of support that is otherwise extremely lacking in your UCAT journey. Many past students offer UCAT tutoring, who can be found online or through the KIS platform to help you find a high-scoring tutor with professional support.

My tips and tricks

Learn from your mistakes: doing heaps and heaps of questions is inefficient and ineffective. To improve in the UCAT, you should spend a considerable amount of time analysing your mistakes, figuring out WHY you made them (misread the question, didn’t understand what it was asking, made a mistake in your reasoning, rushed, etc), and coming up with a strategy to ensure you never make the same mistake twice. A good way to do this is by keeping a ‘mistakes log’ that will help you target your practice toward the areas where you are making the most mistakes.

Think like an examiner: I’ve written UCAT questions for companies in the past, and it isn’t easy. There are only so many patterns you can come up with, and layers that you can add to questions to make them more challenging. If you learn to see past the scary facade of the questions, it can make them just a little bit easier.

Focus on adopting a growth mindset: There is quite a bit of variation between practice tests, so it’s important to not freak out if your improvement doesn’t follow a linear growth pattern (each score higher than the last). It rarely does, but especially not in the UCAT. You learn more from your mistakes than you ever would from getting something right, and so a lower score in a practice exam simply means more to learn from!

Get into a routine: Unfortunately, a lot of the UCAT comes down to how well you can perform on the day. By following a regular sleep schedule, minimising distractions, and getting the most out of your physical and mental health, you can try to maximise the chance you perform at your best on exam day.

Lean on those around you: Unlike school, where you have plenty of teachers, classmates, and friends around you to support you through the process, the UCAT is largely an independent process. By forming study groups with your friends, you can keep each other accountable, share strategies for answering questions, and make the overall experience a whole lot more enjoyable.

Conclusion

All in all, the UCAT is a pretty overwhelming experience. It drains a lot of time from already overworked Year 12 students, and it can be challenging to get over the learning curve, making it rather discouraging to prepare for. It requires students to switch from the mindset of learning content (like you do for school) to learning HOW to do questions.

Having a tutor or preparation course, as well as a solid support system can make a big difference in your score and time available to focus on ATAR and your social life, health, sport, and countless other competing interests. Check out some of Australia's best UCAT Tutors.

An insanely high UCAT score is helpful, but not essential for getting into these courses – a decent score with a solid ATAR and good interview skills are often more than enough to see you through. And there are always other pathways to getting into medicine and dentistry, so don’t put too much pressure on yourself.

The UCAT is the first opportunity to get a foot into the door of these courses, so it’s easy to get overly fixated on it, but it’s far from the last and there are many other ways to get into your dream course if all doesn’t go to plan.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ Section)

What is the best way to prepare for the UCAT?

Anyone sitting on the UCAT should scour their website to learn everything they can from the people who write the test. Not only is it free, but it’s also the most representative source of what you will see on the real test and will help you become familiar with the exact format that you will encounter on the day.

How are UCAT questions chosen?

There is a larger pool of questions that get used each year, which are selected and presented at random to each student to neutralise the possibility of cheating - as every student’s test will be unique. While the questions differ between students, their scores are equated and balanced to ensure a standardised scaled score, so you will not be disadvantaged by when you chose to sit the exam.

What is the alternative pathway to Medicine that does not require the UCAT?

The main alternate pathway into medicine, the post-graduate pathway, doesn’t require the UCAT. In this pathway, the UCAT is replaced by the GAMSAT, and the ATAR is replaced by your undergraduate university scores – which can be in any degree, but most people chose a health/science-related degree such as biomedicine, science, or nursing.


Written by KIS Academics Tutor for VCE English, Cody Bellgrove. Cody is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Medical Science and Doctor of Medicine (MD) – Direct Entry at Monash University and has received stellar reviews from his past KIS Academics students. You can view Cody’s profile to request him as a tutor.

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